Whitmer exempts Michigan churches from penalties for 50+ gatherings
Religious houses of worship are now exempt from being penalized if they violate Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's ban on gatherings of more than 50 people.
On Monday, Whitmer issued an executive order in response to coronavirus that said "all assemblages of more than 50 people in a single indoor shared space and all events of more than 50 people are prohibited."
Later in the week, the order was updated to add a part that reads: “A place of religious worship is not subject to penalty under section 3 of Executive Order 2020-11.” Section three of the original order said that "a willful violation of this order shall constitute a misdemeanor."
That means that churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples will not be penalized with a misdemeanor if they violate the rule to keep assemblies under 50 people.
"The limit still applies, but a place of religious worship is not subject to penalty," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown told the Free Press Friday.
The original order had exceptions for health care centers, workplaces, the state legislature and mass transit.
In a Facebook post, Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, thanked Whitmer for the update to the order, writing: "People have a God-given right to assemble and worship, and that right is secured by both the United States and Michigan Constitution."
But Chatfield added that: "I believe that as Christians we also have a duty to love our fellow man and play our role within society. My recommendation is to find ways that you can abide within the order to the best of your ability."
In metro Detroit, many churches, mosques, synagogues and temples have canceled weekend in-person services, with some of them livestreaming instead.
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Spokespeople for the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit and Kensington Church, the largest Protestant congregation in metro Detroit, told the Free Press on Friday they will continue to have online-only services this Sunday, as they did last week.
"We are following CDC and state recommendations to keep our community and staff safe," Kensington spokeswoman Melissa Thwing said. "We will continue holding services online."
Many mosques in metro Detroit also continue to be closed for weekly Friday prayers.
The Rev. Kenneth Flowers of Greater New Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Detroit said his church had regular services last week, but will be online-only this Sunday. Two members of his congregation have tested positive for coronavirus, he said. They did not attend church in recent weeks, but some of their loved ones did, Flowers said.
Flowers said he and other churches are concerned for congregants who are losing their jobs and for church employees who rely on donations to the churches. Many members are elderly and aren't used to online giving and so when they can't come to church, donations may decrease, he said.
"It's having a rippling effect on us financially," Flowers said. "This is the first time in my 42 years of preaching that we've had something like this."
Despite the challenges, Flowers said he's trying to stay positive and hopeful. The church has about 800 members.
"We have to trust in God in the midst of the coronavirus, in the midst of economic upheaval," Flowers said. Citing a Biblical verse, he said: "Fear not, God is on our side."
Dennis Lennox, a member of an Episcopal Church in Detroit, said he welcomed the update to the executive order that gives churches an exemption from being penalized.
“It is imperative that constitutional rights and liberties — particularly the fundamental right to worship almighty God — aren’t impeded by the response" to the spread of coronavirus, Lennox said. "Decisions about religious services should be fully made by spiritual authorities without pressure by temporal authorities."
Contact Niraj Warikoo: email@example.com or 313-223-4792. Twitter @nwarikoo